On International Women’s Day a majority of women were showing photography in significant galleries.
Their gender and identification as ‘artists’ who use photography would have attracted astonishment in the 1960s, but is barely remarked now, and among them important and radical Australians and international artists. Behind that is a particular take on history.
Starry Kong You can’t walk this earth forever. Someday you will have to fly at Perth Centre for Photography to 26 March
We, Us, Them: CCP x Belfast Exposed : Cate Consandine, Anu Kumar, Deirdre Robb and Lesley Cherry, Raphaela (Rosie) Rosella (with Dayannah Baker Barlow, Kathleen Duncan, Tricia Whitton and family), Julie Rrap and Milpa Space, Spinifex Arts Project (Sophia Brown, Maureen Donegan, Timo Hogan and Janine Hogan and Louise Allerton) at centre for contemporary photography, 404 George Street, Fitzroy, to 17 April
IMA – Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane shows Megan Cope and Taloi Havini in This language that is every stone, to 16 April.
Sutton Gallery, alongside Catherine Bell’s work is showing Anne Ferran‘s Birdlike until 2 April, while the 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT10) in Brisbane at QAGOMA also features women making photo media (until 25 April 2022).
The 1970s decade is a period on which I am concentrating the proposal, with others including Phil Quirk, for an exhibition of Prahran College alumni who, now aged sixty or seventy, are still producing significant work. Our college years were a transformative time for photographers as our medium was again being accepted as an art form and shown in galleries after the reign of the Pictorialists some forty years before, but this time accepted in its own right, not as an imitation of painting.
It was as decade literally bookended by Australian-born social historian Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970) and her The Obstacle Race (1979), aligned with the feminist revolution. The latter volume detailed women artists’ struggle for the very recognition of their existence, and their battle continued.
Olive Cotton is a case in question but not mentioned in The Obstacle Race oeuvre, because it was only during the 1970s that feminist researchers Barbara Hall and Jenni Mather had began to retrieve from obscurity work by unknown or neglected women photographers. Nearly half a century later, Jane Scott whose ‘blonde’ hair colour is irrelevantly pointed out by reporter James Cunningham in the above SMH article Women barred from hotel bar, is a film producer. Alas, she is not as I had mistakenly assumed here, that other Jane Scott, director of Horsham, whom I thank for correcting my faux pas. The only Australian Regional Gallery specialising in photography (Albury comes a close second), Horsham is currently calling for women to pose nude for Ponch Hawkes‘ 500 Strong project. But it is the same Barbara Hall who protests in the newspaper article; “By not allowing us in you are guilty of discrimination. You are not running a public bar. You are running a male only establishment.”
Cotton was one of those included in Hall and Mather’s groundbreaking ‘Australian Women Photographers Research Project’ that culminated in an exhibition at George Paton and Ewing Gallery under writer and historian Judy Annear, just then appointed by her predecessor Kiffy Rubbo who sought someone new and untried. During her directorship Annear, through an involvement with feminist magazine LIP, was responsible for several women-only exhibitions, and feminism informed gallery policy even more strongly. The show toured nationally, and with the 1981 book publication, prompted a new interest in Cotton’s photographs and unprecedented exposure in collections and exhibitions in art museums and galleries (Horsham has her Tea Cup Ballet which is featured full-page in the book). In 1985 Barbara Hall curated Olive Cotton: Photographs 1924–1984 for the ACP.
Hall, then living in a little back lane in Williamstown, was one of two “girls” amongst eleven anti-Vietnam War protesters, including Harry Van Moorst “prominent Melbourne University anti-conscriptionist,” charged in July 1968 with “hindering police.” By 1970 she was a theatre critic on The Sun before moving in the mid-seventies to Sydney to research and write. Some of her longer articles for The Bulletin in 1971 on a range of subjects including cryogenic treatment of corpses (October), and in the same month a penetrating interview with the new director of the Art Gallery of NSW, Peter Laverty, who comes off as just another stiff in a suit, Opera House theatre for the workers (November), and the environmental movement (December).
A disclaimer footnotes her profile of avant-garde gallery Inhibodress (she was partner then of Peter Kennedy, its director); “Barbara Hall has been associated with Inhibodress since its inception.” In 1972, she and Kennedy visited visited the US where she met Lucy Lippard (author, From the center: feminist essays on women’s art, 1976) and discovered the West East Bag Registry. It was, to use the term then on women’s lips; “consciousness-raising”. The author profile on the dust cover flap of Australian women photographers 1890-1950 notes: “Barbara Hall moved to Melbourne in 1977. She lives with her three-year-old daughter, Eva, and works as a trade union journalist.”
Back in Sydney, Hall and her colleagues met to initiate the Women’s Art Slide Register (surviving as the Women’s Art Register, Richmond, Melbourne) to which professional and amateur artists were invited to submit images of their work; an effort to combat the prevailing notion that there were no women artists, to promote research into women’s work and boost the confidence of women artists.
In 1976 she co-curated exhibitions of contemporary and historical women artists: Women’s Images of Women at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Self Image at One Central Street Gallery in Sydney. She wrote for early issues of Lip magazine which appeared that year and was one of the collective which published it, along with some familiar names among Suzanne Davies, Christine Johnston, Janine Burke, Isobel Davies, Elizabeth Gower, Freda Frieberg, Annette Blonski, Lesley Dumbrell, Suzanne Spunner, Meredith Rogers.
Then came the show for which the book served as a catalogue, Australian Women Photographers 1890-1950; co-curated with Jenni Mather at the George Paton Gallery at Melbourne University before touring nationally in 1981-82.
In 1982 in a “Review of the last decade” (In: The growth of women’s art: from manifesto to polemics, seminar papers, Sydney, NSW Women and Arts Festival, 1982, p. 20) her attitude to the avant-garde had changed radically;
“[Despite not yet reaching a full decade of feminism in the arts] ten years ago—1972—is still an interesting comparison nonetheless. In Sydney the art hippies at the Yellow House waged a stupid unwinnable rivalry with the new misunderstoods, the conceptualists and post-object artists, all male of course, at Inhibodress, a collective in name only. Women occasionally exhibited or performed in either space … but were seldom noticed by critics. If you were a woman artist or performer, people looked around for your boyfriend.”
In 1975 she was already framing the sort of selection we find in Australian Women Photographers. In the feminist magazine Refractory Girl (a riposte to The Rolling Stones slumming it in ‘Factory Girl’ on Beggars’ Banquet 1968) she writes;
“There cannot be great women artists until culture itself is redefined.”
Australian Women Photographers, with its scant footnotes and half-page bibliography, does not fit the current standards and format of an academic work and Helen Ennis in 2011, surveying the field in ‘Other Histories: Photography and Australia’ in the Journal of Art Historiography (no. 4), considers Mathers’ and Hall’s book as “more descriptive than analytical and interpretive,” but that is to miss how its introduction frames the biographies.
There, Hall makes it clear that in the 19th century many women successfully ran studios all over the country, so the book amongst its 45 biographies includes the commercially successful, like May and Mina Moore, Ruth Hollick, Pegg Clarke, or the photojournalists including Sarah Chinnery, Heather George and Adele Hurley, but also those women who managed to take up photography amidst other duties expected of them with a diaristic intent.
She sets against Pictorialism’s “calm and depopulated landscapes, haunted by gum trees in soft focus,” others, amateurs and professionals “mapping the whole landscape, recording people and backyards, costumes and gestures, and the daily eccentricities of bush living; naturalism, but not belonging to a ‘school’ of photography, and argues that “to think and write about photography as an art form within the specific terms of conventional art history is unrealistic.”
Though modernist (Cotton’s Teacups being an example) and humanist movements are not mentioned as such, she and Mather take up, mid-1980s, the radical re-framing of the relationship of photography in the entire cultural and social environment. It required their ‘open-ended curiosity’ rather than adherence to a field of the ‘notable’ or pantheon of the ‘prominent,’ and attention to the decision (one that men did not have to make) being made by the women profiled in the book; “do I follow the mainstream or explore the other shrouded female territory?”
Women’s redefinition of culture will be the biggest blood and guts overhaul of a decrepit and decaying institution that’s going to make avant-gardism look like child’s play.”
In that ‘redefinition’ was the feminist root of postmodernism.